Operating a four-story crane, Woody Woodall, 52, lifts a concrete panel from the back of a flatbed truck and slowly lowers the half-ton slab onto a home foundation in a grassy lot in Wellington, Fla. (pop. 38,216).
Immediately, several construction workers surround the slab to drill and fasten the panel into place.
“That’s our living room wall,” says retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Steven Holloway, 36, watching intently from his wheelchair at the edge of the lot.
“I can’t believe we’re actually watching this happen,” adds Holloway, surrounded by his children: Stevie, 9, Stephanie, 4, and Isabelle, 2.
The foundational moment kicks off two days of feverish construction work in which professional tradespeople volunteer their time and skills to raise a new home for a severely disabled soldier—almost like an old-fashioned barn-raising for a neighbor in need.
“This is the least we can do for the men and women who served for us in Iraq and Afghanistan,” says John Gonsalves, 44, founder of Homes for Our Troops, a national nonprofit organization that builds specially adapted homes for seriously wounded servicemen and military veterans such as Holloway, at no cost to the soldier.
Gonsalves, whose paternal grandfather was killed in service during World War II, was inspired to action by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 when he was a construction supervisor in Taunton, Mass. (pop. 55,976). Realizing that some soldiers would return one day from the Middle East needing barrier-free homes to accommodate wheelchairs, he started Homes for Our Troops in 2004 because no such program existed.
The organization since has built homes for 58 disabled veterans in 23 states. Another 30 homes are under construction.
“It’s simple,” Gonsalves says of the group’s purpose. “It’s our job as a community to take care of our disabled veterans.”
Holloway was leading a mission to train Iraqi police in January 2007 when his unit was rerouted to the scene of a deadly roadside bombing in Mosul, Iraq.
“We responded to an IED (improvised explosive device) attack that killed four soldiers,” Holloway remembers. “My medic went to work on an injured soldier. We were trying to get him out of there as fast as possible and, in the process, I was shot by a sniper.”
The bullet tore through Holloway’s spinal cord and left him partially paralyzed and dependent on a wheelchair for mobility. After two months of rehabilitation at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., and another three months at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Tampa, Fla., he returned home in 2007 to Royal Palm Beach, Fla. (pop. 21,523).
Holloway and his family immediately faced the challenges of daily life in a townhouse that was not designed for wheelchairs.
“There was barely enough room for me to get into the house,” Holloway says. “It was really tight. I couldn’t fit all the way in the shower in my wheelchair. Here’s my 3-year-old daughter trying to push me in and help me close the shower door.”
By contrast, his new home will include wide hallways, ramps and lowered countertops, as well as push-button doors and a front-loading washing machine.
“This will get his independence back,” says Holloway’s wife, Laurie, 35, pregnant with the couple’s fourth child. “It’s a big deal for us and for him especially.”
Plans for a new home for the Holloways began with a $63,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to build a handicap-accessible house, which costs an average of $330,000, according to Gonsalves. The balance is paid by Homes for Our Troops and its network of funding sources.
“It’s a partnership, really,” Gonsalves explains. “We get support from corporate sponsors, professional tradespeople and foundation grants. But mostly, it’s about neighbors stepping up to take care of these guys. Through a community effort, we can let soldiers know that people care. No VA check or benefit can have that kind of effect.”
Coordinated by Homes for Our Troops, local construction workers and tradespeople take time from their regular jobs to wield hammers, hang drywall, wire for electricity, install plumbing, make cabinets and perform the hundreds of other tasks required to build a home—either during the initial two- to three-day “build brigade” or the finishing work that goes on for up to six months afterward. Each project climaxes with a ceremony in which the house keys are presented to the new homeowner.
“It’s heartwarming to be able to see who you’re physically doing this for,” says Bernie Simpson, 57, a building contractor from West Palm Beach, glancing at Holloway and his family.
Simpson donated his time, plus the labor of six workers from his construction company, to swing the trusses into position and frame the roof.
“My son is a combat vet serving in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Simpson explains. “We’re happy to do this. It’s a great team effort.”
Once complete, the homes help newly disabled veterans reclaim their lives—and their futures.
Retired Staff Sgt. Matt Keil, 28, was hit by sniper fire during his second tour of duty in Iraq in 2007 and returned to America as a quadriplegic. In 2008, he felt the loving embrace of his hometown of Parker, Colo. (pop. 43,767), when about 500 people turned out to help construct a home for him and his wife, Tracy, through Homes for Our Troops.
“The build brigade integrated my wife and I into the neighborhood,” Keil says. “I know everybody on my block. If I go into town, people don’t say, ‘Oh, there’s a guy in a wheelchair.’ They say, ‘There’s Staff Sgt. Matt Keil, the injured war vet that lives in our community.’”
Retired Staff Sgt. Russ Marek, 38, of Viera, Fla. (pop. 19,083), also moved into a Homes for Our Troops dwelling in 2008. Marek uses a wheelchair after losing his right arm and right leg in 2005, when his tank rolled over a makeshift bomb in Baghdad. But because of ramp access and a customized kitchen and bedroom in his new home, he can function without complete dependence on his parents.
“When the house was going up, I couldn’t believe it,” Marek says. “Then a few months later, when it was all finished, they gave me the keys. Incredible!”